Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge #11’ Category

The 1990 New Canadian Library edition of Hetty Doval has an inapt cover illustration. Its reproduction of an E.J. Hughes painting depicts coastal Ladysmith, B.C., a rather different locality (though they share a water’s edge location) to arid inland Lytton and its rivers descending from the mountains.

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1990. New Canadian Library edition. Afterword by Northrop Frye. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-8953-8. 104 pages.

Canadian-by-circumstance writer Ethel Wilson – born in South Africa, orphaned at the age of ten and brought to Vancouver, B.C. to live with her grandmother – produced a sadly meager handful of very well regarded novellas, novels and short story collections, all sharing themes of strong female protagonists and distinct senses of place.

In Hetty Dorval the place is the tiny Fraser Canyon community of Lytton, British Columbia. Ethel Wilson captured its unique essence perfectly, as I can affirm to, having spent some time there myself, the latest occasion being a day-and-night stay just a month ago. Though I didn’t consciously choose to read the novella in response to that recent experience, I found it added a definite piquancy to my reading.

Twelve-year-old Frances Burnaby – “Frankie” – is a ranch child boarding in Lytton during the week to attend school. She rides the fifteen miles to and from her home with calm competence, quietly revelling in her good fortune of having a loved and loving family, congenial friends and acquaintances, and physical surroundings of immense natural beauty.

The blue Thompson meets the silt-laden Fraser at Lytton, viewed from the bridge over the Thompson, where Frankie would have stood. The joining of the two rivers is used as a strongly symbolic metaphor throughout Hetty Dorval, its most obvious representation being the meeting and melding of innocence and its opposite.

Coming into Lytton from the north, a view much as our fictional Frankie would have had almost a century ago; the village hasn’t changed all that much; its setting not at all.

Not much happens in quiet little Lytton. Life for Frankie follows a predictable pattern of school and after school ramblings with best friend Ernestine. When the train pulls into the village’s tiny station, Frankie and Ernestine are there to watch as often as they can get away with it, “hanging out” by the train station being gently frowned on by the adults in the girls’ lives. (Social mores are predictably strict as the novella’s start is set in the early 1930s.)

So there they are at the train station, standing among the lounging bystanders, and there they see the household effects of newcomer Mrs. Dorval being unloaded – crates and crates of household effects, a grand piano, and a large Newfoundland dog. These are collected by a quiet grey-haired woman; the girls assume she is Mrs. Dorval, but they are wrong.

The real Mrs. Dorval turns up a few days later, and she proves to be quite the stunner. Young, beautiful, an accomplished horsewoman, musician and singer, both Frankie and Ernestine find her fascinating enough to mildly stalk in their adolescent way, collecting what information the local gossips can provide (not much) and trailing by the isolated bungalow Mrs. Dorval has rented and staffed with a housekeeper, the elderly Mrs. Broom (nicknamed by Hetty “Mouse”), and has turned into a retreat from the world. She does not encourage callers.

Frankie meets Mrs. Dorval one day while both are out riding, a spark is struck between the two of them, and while Frankie’s emotion is that of a garden variety schoolgirl crush, we’re not quite sure why Mrs. Dorval encourages her company. “Call me Hetty”, orders Mrs. Dorval, and though Frankie can’t quite bring herself to breach social etiquette between children and adults to this degree, she is happy enough to be plied with tea and treats and to provide an audience for Hetty’s musical performances. Frankie falls in with Hetty’s request to not tell anyone about her on-the-sly visits to the bungalow, and the infatuated Frankie complies, but inevitably someone catches on and word gets out, and Frankie comes home one weekend to a stiff grilling by her concerned parents.

An “unsavoury story” has followed Hetty Dorval from her last port of call – exotic Shanghai, a long way indeed from Lytton – and Frankie’s parents are appalled that their daughter has been co-opted into Hetty Dorval’s questionably moral establishment. Frankie’s mother won’t divulge the nature of Mrs. Dorval’s past history to her innocent daughter, but she is adamant in her condemnation, calling Hetty, with dry almost-humour, “The Menace”, and when she asks Frankie to break off the acquaintance, Frankie reluctantly complies, going back just once to say goodbye, which seems to be harder on her than on the jaded Mrs. Dorval, who sighs and takes it all in stride.

She looked at the fire a minute and then went on. “I know what they’ve told you, Frankie. They’ve told you I’m bad. You must try to believe,” she turned her brilliant look on me, “that I’m not bad, and that if you knew a little more you’d understand about it. Can you believe that? . . . Do you think I’m bad, Frankie?” she said, laughing a little.

I almost whispered, “No.”

“Try and stay my friend,” she said. “Even if you can’t come to see me, try and stay my friend . . . Very well . . . Good-bye . . . ” and with as little emotion as she would have shown in saying good-bye to the postman she got up – she did not come over to touch me – and went into her bedroom and shut the door. It made it easier and harder that she did not come and touch me. She left me standing in the suddenly withdrawn intimacy of the firelit room, with only Sailor sleeping there on the hearth.

I had stood only a moment when Mouse, who must have been listening, came into the room. She opened the front door. “You’d best be going,” she said. And I went.

As Frankie matures and moves out into the wider world – boarding school for a year in Vancouver, then off to England and the Continent – she finds herself once more crossing paths with Hetty Dorval, and the true nature of the woman at the centre of that childhood infatuation becomes ever more apparent, to Frankie’s growing dismay.

Is Hetty truly the menace that she seems to be? The label of “Narcissist” seems to fit perfectly, but how did Hetty get this way? What emotional scars (if any) has she hidden behind her beautifully emotionless face? Esther Wilson gives what might be telling clues, but denies a final judgement, leaving the reader to ponder possibilities…

Hetty Dorval is a memorable example of the novella form, and it is no wonder that it was chosen by the esteemed Persephone Press for reprinting in 2015.  Persephone’s expanded review is well worth reading, though it does contain a number of “spoilers” – first time readers may wish to wait till after to peruse this one.

An easy 9.5/10 for Hetty Dorval from me. Very close indeed to perfect. (I’m still mulling over what exactly Hetty was after regarding the childish Frankie. Was it merely moral predation, or something more sexually sordid? The author leaves a lot unsaid, but my 21st century mind speculates and wonders…  Fellow readers, what did you think?)

I have had a similarly positive response to two other of the writer’s novels, Swamp Angel – read in 2016 but not yet written about –  and The Innocent Traveller, posted about in 2013 here.

I do love the settings, because I know them so very well in real life, and though my Captive Reader friend Claire might differ regarding long passages of description (she’s not keen!) I’m always a sucker for a good word-picture of a place. The stories transcend their setting; for a native British Columbian it’s merely an added bonus. We agree on the essentials: good stuff from Ethel Wilson!

The view from behind the railway station at Lytton taken in mid September, 2017, looking northward up the Fraser River. All symbolism aside, Ethel Wilson’s vivid descriptions of the setting of her story demonstrate the strong emotional appeal of certain geographies on susceptible human emotions. Genius loci is discussed at some length, and the term is most apt.

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